No Place Like Home?

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‘There’s no place like home.’ The main narrative in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz is that of going on a fantastic adventure and the strangeness encountered on that adventure, resulting in the reaffirmation of love for one’s starting point or home. When we get our organisational cultures right, they can certainly feel like a version of home – they feel safe. Robust cultures speak of teams like a family. This doesn’t mean there are no conflicts because, frankly, many families are full of conflicts; rather it’s that those within the organisational family feel they can be themselves and can dissent, diverge and be diverse without fear of reprisal. You can have disagreements and still know that, when it counts, the other people have your back. What’s also true is that in a great culture you can fail safely. The link between psychological safety, the ability to fail and the ability to be creative and innovate is well documented.

I often like to use the analogy of shoes as a great metaphor for culture. When our shoes fit, we don’t really notice them- they are just like part of our feet. When they do not fit: when they pinch or rub, we may be hard pressed to think of anything else. The discomfort will be a constant undercurrent to everything we do. No matter how wonderful the work we produce is, we will constantly be aware of this pain, even if we are wearing ruby slippers! But will it ever truly be our best work if part of our mind and spirit is processing the pain or discomfort we feel from a lack of cultural belonging?

That sense of belonging is something that resonates with Ingrid Cope, Legal Director for western Europe at Coca Cola, “An ideal workplace culture is where people feel that they’ve got that sense of belonging. That means that they’ve got the psychological safety to dissent and or to raise different ideas about how to do things better. That leads to the intellectual friction that gets you to better ideas and innovation.”

Richard Harris, Chief Legal Officer at recruitment firm, Robert Walters Group agrees, “Family and familiar, they’re very similar. Familiarity is really important within your team, because I think if people feel comfortable, you know, they are more likely to contribute and the less barriers you have the stronger the cohesion is.” Richard shares that his team is sometimes referred to as the ‘legal family.’ But he cautions building this kind of familiarity is not the easiest approach for leaders in creating cultures.: “Hierarchy is, sometimes the easier route, it’s very clean and easy to explain. You see people who think that if the structure is easy to explain, it must be the right structure, but I think that’s not necessarily correct at all. You may need to employ a federal approach in building your team culture, which takes interpersonal relationships into account and where people have interlocking responsibilities. But it’s the idea you all play an important part in something greater that binds you together – your culture.”

The concept of home and family is one that is often placed at odds with the workplace. We go to work and come home to our families. We strive for balance between the two- sometimes suggesting an opposition. Recent events with the global pandemic have thrown the traditional separation of work and home into confusion. A cultural challenge for many organisations and their employees now, is where does work end and home start? It’s a phenomenon we have seen growing since the advent of the digital age: work is much more mobile and permeates into all aspects of our life. Digital connectivity gives us flexibility, but it also is in danger of taking over?

Sarah Macdonald became Chief Legal Officer at KFC Europe in the Spring of 2019. Her first priority was to redefine the culture and purpose of the legal team alongside determining whether they had the right talent. She was then plunged into doing much of that work during the Copvid-19 pandemic when many of the certainties about work and home were being disrupted. A concept that was influential to Sarah in how she wanted to model the team and their culture was ‘total motivation’ or ToMo. This idea came from Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor’s book Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. ToMo is comprised of three positive factors which influence performance: play; purpose and potential. The most important aspect is play – can you be creative in your work? Does your work feel like so much fun it doesn’t seem like- well – work!

Fundamental to this, Sarah feels, is “The concept of play: that you constantly create moments of fun and connection where it feels the same when people are at work as if they’re off cycling on the weekend. That people are just really enjoying it and feeling that sense of purpose helps reinforce confidence.”

Bringing this sense of motivation, creativity and enjoyment to what the team did helped redefine the team’s culture to be more like a version of home -somewhere the team enjoyed being. As the lines between home and work blurred during the pandemic, having this sense of cultural belonging and purpose but, most importantly, enjoyment was central to keeping Sarah’s team motivated. The ability to truly enjoy what we do is always a key factor in cultural success because it keeps us motivated, as Steve Jobs said: “If you really look at the ones that ended up, you know, being “successful” in the eyes of society and the ones that didn’t, oftentimes, it’s the ones who were successful loved what they did so they could persevere when it got really tough.”

What’s also at the heart of a successful workplace ‘family’ is the ability to fail safely which Richard Harris has placed at the centre of his leadership style. It’s not being afraid to be vulnerable and to be open about when he has made mistakes. As a dyslexic who was not diagnosed until the age of 13, being told he was a failure was something he internalized and knows the pain that it can bring. “What it’s taught me it to be a bit forgiving; you can when you make mistakes, that the world is going to fall apart; it’s important to create a culture which shows that it won’t.”


( A longer version of this article appeared in Modern Lawyer, July 2021)

Contributed by:

Dr Catherine McGregor MCMI ChMC
Consulting, Thought Leadership, Training
+44 (0) 7753 196264

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